Why Bush let Iraq's top terrorist walk.

Military analysis.
Oct. 29 2004 5:08 PM

Holy Zarqawi

Why Bush let Iraq's top terrorist walk.

Why didn't the Bush administration kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi when it had the chance?

That it had opportunities to take out the Jordanian-born jihadist has been clear since Secretary of State Colin Powell devoted a long section of his February 2003 speech to the United Nations Security Council. In those remarks, which were given to underscore the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, Powell dwelt at length on the terrorist camp in Khurmal, in the pre-invasion Kurdish enclave. It was at that camp that Zarqawi, other jihadists who had fled Afghanistan, and Kurdish radicals were training and producing the poison ricin and cyanide.

Neither the Khurmal camp nor the surrounding area were under Saddam's control, but Powell provided much detail purporting to show Zarqawi's ties to the Baghdad regime. His arguments have since been largely discredited by the intelligence community. Many of us who have worked in counterterrorism wondered at the time about Powell's claims. If we knew where the camp of a leading jihadist was and knew that his followers were working on unconventional weapons, why weren't we bombing it or sending in special operations forces—especially since this was a relatively "permissive" environment?

In recent months, the mystery of the administration's inaction has only grown. News reports—including, most recently, one in the Wall Street Journal this week—make it clear that military leaders and the CIA felt Zarqawi was a threat that could and should be removed. On at least three occasions between mid-2002 and the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon presented plans to the White House to destroy the Khurmal camp. Each time the White House declined to act or did not respond at all.

It is impossible to see that refusal as anything other than an enormous blunder. This week Zarqawi claimed responsibility for executing 49 Iraqi army recruits. Since shortly after Saddam was toppled, Zarqawi's Tawhid wal Jihad group has been astonishingly effective at undermining the U.S. occupation. These operatives have killed wholesale, with a long string of car and truck bombs to their credit, and they have killed retail, with the videotaped executions of hostages, which have become must-see TV in the Muslim world and are driving contractors and NGOs out of the country. There is no reliable tally of Zarqawi's victims, but it would not be surprising if it was over 1,000. The issue of why no attempt to get him was made has become even more pungent since President Bush began pointing to Zarqawi in response to Sen. John Kerry's contention that Iraq was a diversion from the war on terror.

Despite numerous press inquiries and questions from Capitol Hill, the administration has never given a straight answer about why it held back. Some officials have offered the excuse that there was no certainty that Zarqawi would be present at the camp when an attack took place. This is unpersuasive. Even if there was no guarantee—and recently retired military officials say the terrorist was, in fact, living at the site—there should have been some urgency about destroying a camp where jihadists were producing ricin. This isn't a parlor gamer: In early 2003, British police dismantled a jihadist cell that was linked to Zarqawi and was planning attacks involving ricin.

What seems evident is that the administration viewed Zarqawi as a lower-tier concern, despite his well-known history of running an Afghan terrorist training camp and conducting terrorist operations in Europe. The White House was unwilling to divert any effort from the buildup for war in Iraq to this kind of threat.

The idea that states are the real issue and terrorists and their organizations are of secondary concern has been present throughout the Bush presidency. Although the 9/11 commission wrote its report in a spare, non-judgmental tone to preserve bipartisan unity, its description of the long, aimless road the administration took to the first meeting of its national security Cabinet on the issue of al-Qaida on Sept. 4, 2001, speaks volumes. By contrast, the first "principals" meeting on the issue of regime change in Iraq took place in January 2001, shortly after Bush's inauguration.

After 9/11, senior officials such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, simply refused to believe the assessment of the intelligence community that Iraq had no hand in the attack and that al-Qaida operated independently of state support. In the Pentagon's conduct of operations in Afghanistan, the overwhelming focus was on unseating the Taliban, the effective state power, while less attention was paid to pursuing al-Qaida, which had just killed nearly 3,000 people on American soil. Thus we had the debacle at Tora Bora, where our subcontractors, the militias of Afghan warlords, allowed Osama Bin Laden to escape.

Similarly, the relentless focus on Saddam Hussein has led to the removal from Afghanistan of key intelligence and special operations assets, including much of the elite commando unit Task Force 5. This, like the case of the pulled punch against Zarqawi, suggests that the Bush team continued to believe that states were the key threats in the post-9/11 world; terrorist groups could easily be swept up after the rogue nations had been dispatched. The much vaunted doctrine of pre-emption was employed against Iraq—a state that was effectively deterred from attacking the United States—while undeterrable terrorists were left to their own devices.

It seems never to have occurred to President Bush and his advisers that in a globalized world, where borders are porous and technologies of massive destructiveness are available, hidden networks can be far more dangerous than a state, which can be threatened and contained. Yet that surely has been the lesson of the last three years. It is an added irony that the administration's inability to fully assimilate the threat from "non-state actors" is leading, thanks in part to Zarqawi, to the failure of its effort to reinvent Iraq as a stable democracy in the Middle East.

Daniel Benjamin is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served as director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff in 1998-99 and is the co-author ofThe Age of Sacred Terrorand The Next Attack.